Formosa Group’s Scott Hecker on creating iconic sounds
By Jennifer Walden
If you’re looking to see a deep, intellectual movie, you might want to skip Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But if it’s action you are after, buy your ticket and enjoy the ride. Directed by Zack Snyder — who has helmed 300, Dawn of the Dead, Watchmen, Sucker Punch and Man of Steel — this film tries to answer the age-old question asked on playgrounds and in bars worldwide: “Who would win in a fight? Batman or Superman?”
For Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman, Snyder called on his go-to supervising sound editor/designer Scott Hecker from Santa Monica’s Formosa Group — Hecker has worked on all of the Snyder films mentioned above, and more. “His vision is amazing,” Hecker says of Snyder. “It’s always fun to see what he puts on screen. It’s just a treat for a sound designer to dig his teeth into an amazing film like this.”
The Sound of Superheroes
Hecker’s sound design work on Man of Steel paved the way for Batman v Superman. The sounds from both films are the start of a growing library that will define the ensuing DC Comic films coming via Warner Bros. On Man of Steel, Hecker says they created Superman’s unique flying sounds by processing numerous wind and whoosh effects, but there was one throwback ingredient they included to make the flying sounds authentically Superman. “There’s a bit of the George Reeves flying sound from the original Superman TV series. The sound isn’t dominant, but we just had to include it. If you hear it you know exactly what it is and where it is from,” says Hecker.
Other superheroes and villains take the screen in Batman v Superman, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who is the focus of the next feature film in the series. Knowing that, Hecker paid special attention to Wonder Woman’s characteristic sounds. “They are presently shooting Wonder Woman in the UK. So while we were working on Wonder Woman’s sounds for this film, we wanted to come up with something that could hopefully carry forward, because the next film is entirely based on Wonder Woman. Her sounds weren’t just a one-off in this film.”
Wonder Woman has two main sound elements to her superpower. There is the clank of her wristbands followed by a power blast. For the wristband clank, Hecker says he and his sound designer Chuck Michael searched far and wide to find a sound that was feminine, magical and tonally pleasing. “The final sound is a really powerful, solid metallic clank. It has a cool ring to it and it has a tone to it, instead of it just sounding like a normal metal hit. It sounds feminine and powerful with a cool tone.”
For the power blast, “we were thinking that it needed to feel magical, like a superpower, and not something earthly,” says Hecker. To achieve an interesting tonal feel without being overly musical, they processed different gongs and bells by manipulating the pitch and speed, and added modulation using Waves MondoMod and other plug-ins.
“It has a stuttering effect to make it feel like it is emulating a force. It’s unique, and it sounds powerful and magical at the same time,” says Hecker, who feels that designing superhero sounds is part skill and part serendipity. “It’s like playing in a sonic sandbox. You just keep experimenting with things until all the sudden it’s like sonic alchemy — a beautiful accident happens and you go, ‘Wow that was cool! What did we just do?” That happens for a lot of what we do and that’s the fun of it. It really is a lot of experimentation and just playing until something tickles your funny bone and you feel good about it.”
Batman (Ben Affleck) may not have superpowers, but he’s super rich and super smart, and that’s good enough for gaining entry into the crime-fighting game. Sound-wise, Hecker wanted to reflect Bruce Wayne’s refined sense of style in Batman’s arsenal of high-tech gear, including his sweet ride — the Batmobile.
“We recorded the Batmobile on-location in Detroit, which was really exciting,” explains Hecker. “In putting that production vehicle together, they had to invert and reverse the transmission. On a technical level, I don’t know why they did it but it created this interesting sound. When I heard a sample of this reversed transmission, with this reversed whine and pitched-up characteristic to it — I thought there is a lot of promise there.”
He sent sound effects recordist John Fasal to Detroit to capture every sound he could from the Batmobile. There was just one stipulation: since they didn’t want to risk breaking the vehicle before they had a chance to shoot the scenes, they only allowed Fasal to capture the recordings during the vehicle tests. “They were constantly testing the vehicle to make sure it could withstand the various stunts and maneuvers that were required in the chase scenes. So they allowed John to put as many mics as he wanted on the car, in the car, on the engine and the tailpipe, but he couldn’t dictate what he wanted the car to do. He could just be there and capture as many sounds as he was able to capture.”
With the Batmobile miked up, Fasal was free to capture all the exterior sounds too, like pass-bys, drive-ups, pull-aways, engine starts and stops.
Back at Formosa, Hecker and his sound team layered the recordings of the Batmobile’s inverted transmission whine with the engine sounds of a Shelby Series 1. “It’s a powerful car, but it has this sleek power to it that works well with the high-pitched whine that was created from the inverted transmission of the Batmobile,” says Hecker. “I’m really happy that they had to do that to the car to make it work for them because otherwise we would’ve been missing a critical element to the sound. I think for other permutations of the Batmobile, in previous films, those sound crews were using jet turbine whines. One thing I always want to avoid is doing something that other people have done before. So this helped us to be original and authentic. It was a win-win.”
For the hand-to-hand combat sequences, Hecker turned to his brother Gary Hecker, a supervising Foley artist at Sony Pictures who has a flair for action films. “I love the process of Foley, and especially being able to work with my brother Gary. He was the perfect guy to get into that action film mode,” says Hecker.
Besides the footsteps and normal hand props, they created new punches, hits, crashes and also cape sounds. “We have Batman’s cape and Superman’s cape — that made everything have a very visceral feel. You actually feel the movement and the characters’ presence in these fights too.” The final combat tracks are a combination of Foley and sound effects tailored to fit the unique qualities of each fight scene. “There are about four fight scenes in the film and they are all different. It’s not just your standard punches and hits. They all have a slightly different feel stylistically. Zack is very smart about that. He has such a colorful vision and he keeps things fresh and fun.”
During the film’s epic battle sequences, there is the potential to go full-bore all the time. Add to that the soaring score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, which at times reaches operatic heights, and you get what Jimmy Fallon called, “One of the loudest movies I’ve ever seen… in a great way.”
Hecker admits it was super challenging to build a dynamic track. “One way that we modulated it was by really changing things up for the various confrontations, fights and action scenes,” he says. On some scenes the effects would drive the mix, and in other scenes the music would lead. They could create shifts in the intensity by having the music and the effects hand-off from one to the other. “As soon as you start hearing operatic motifs in the music, you just know you don’t want to hear a bunch of loud sound effects. So in those situations we turned to using more impressionistic action sounds versus literal punches and hits and crashes.”
On Warner Bros. dub Stage 9, re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins (dialogue/music) and Michael Keller (sound effects/Foley) were tasked with finding harmony among all the elements competing for the same sonic space. “In areas where there are less interesting sound design or effects, we just let the music lead. When in doubt, the music will usually predominate, as it should. It’s a really beautiful score,” says Hecker.
There are definitely areas of the film that get loud but they don’t stay loud. The mixers tried to achieve an intense feeling without hitting levels that would abuse the audience. The loud sections pop in and pop out, giving the audience sonic breaks. Hecker explains the approach on the climactic third act confrontation, where Wonder Woman comes in. “Her theme comes in and the score turns operatic. We got very impressionistic there because by then, throughout the whole film, we had a lot of opportunities for vibrant, colorful, powerful action sounds. By the third act we really wanted to hand-off to music a bit more for the climax.”
Once Jenkins and Keller crafted the final soundtrack on Stage 9, they transferred everything over to Warner Bros. Stage 10 for the Dolby Atmos mix.
“I’m thrilled that audiences are finally able to enjoy our team’s hard work on the film. And as far as what’s sonically in store for the other DC Comics characters, we’re just rolling up our sleeves,” concludes Hecker.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.